My grandmother, whom we called Teta, had a proverb for every occasion, that she spoke in rhyme most of the time. One of them was “Next to the scorpion don’t come near, and next to the snake, lay your mattress and sleep.”
According to Arab culture, a snake would come as an omen, to either bring good news or bad. For example my grandmother would always use the story of how her mother in law was cured of tuberculosis by a snake bite.
Pre-1990s we would go to Syria on our summers. Our eldest cousin Hassan, was our Steve Erwin. He had an obsession with all sort of living organisms. He would collect insects in jars, examine them and dissect them. He would keep anything he can get his hands on in a small closet in his room. He had wasps, beetles, tarantulas, dead turtle shells, monkey skulls, hedgehog spikes, woodpecker beaks, peacock feathers. He could operate a grocery for witches.
He was bit, stung, and injured by various form of insects and animals, to the extent that he seemed to have formed an immunity against everything. He was as hairy as a beast, making it impossible for a mosquito to land on his skin, and the thick layer of hair seemed to insulate him from the cold, making him seem invulnerable.
With summer days being long and bare, he would provoke us for his entertainment. A usual form was by having us hold on to a live beetle or lizard for several minutes. It was distressful for city boys like us, whose only interaction with wildlife was with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
His preferred weapon was pairing his creativity with our gullibility. He came up with a character called Shafika, which was some sort of a talking king snake. This character would summon us to the bathroom and would only appear with the lights out. It would talk to us through the door in a deep voice and bark orders, and if we didn’t comply it would kill us in our sleep. In fear of its wrath we succumbed to its every request out of fear for our lives.
Once, Hassan had found his crown jewel – a real live snake. While on a trip, he caught it, and kept it in a jar in his closet. It was a small snake, around a foot long, and theoretically, non-poisonous. He displayed his snake to while we stared in awe, and he would proclaim that this tiny snake, which seemed huge to us, was Shafika’s son.
One day, he opened the closest and the snake wasn’t there. Apparently it looped itself around the lid of the jar, unscrewed it and escaped. He called to his younger brother, Waleed, to stay on the look out. Most of the family was out of the house that day, except his mother, so the snake had to be found before nightfall.
Waleed, who was 14 at the time, already had practice handling the snake, but in the early hours of the afternoon after running around searching for the snake under couches and beds, Waleed started getting weary of the search, and when he saw his mother having an afternoon nap decided to doze off himself.
During his nap, his mother had woken up and was walking in the house when she saw the snake slithering on the floor. Thinking that it was a toy snake, since it seemed nearly impossible for a real snake be in her 5th floor apartment in the middle of the city, she kicked it. The snake coiled around the leg of a chair, opened its mouth, and hissed. My aunt jumped back, coiled on the bed, opened her mouth, and shrieked.
Alerted, Waleed jumped up from his nap and ran to his mother’s rescue. He started to approach the the snake to catch it by the neck as he was taught by his elder brother. However, before he could do much, he was grabbed by the arm and carried to the neighbor’s house. His mother frantically knocked the door bell, “Abu Issam, Abu Issam, save us!!”
He wore his ubbaab, Syrian wooden clogs worn to the bathroom, and was briefed on the way on what his mission was. Abu Issam stroke his mustache (even though it wasn’t Movember) and knocked on his chest. When he got to where the snake was he stepped on the snake’s head killing it.
He saved the day.
Hassan’s closet lock was broken, it was emptied, everything inside was broken, killed, and thrown away. All the artifacts that Hassan collected were disposed.
Hassan returned home to a quiet and calm house. He walked into the living room full of grim adults, Teta, who was visiting from Lebanon at that time, being amongst them. A lot of things were said by a lot of people. My grandmother was the victim. She slept on the floor since sleeping on a bed made her dizzy, (I never understood why). How did he not have the maturity to inform the household of a loose snake knowing very well that his Teta slept on the floor? He resisted to answer.
The python was roaming freely, the cobra would have killed her, the rattle snake would have put her in grave. He was lectured on wasted time and opportunity. He went to his room and found his closet empty.
Hassan later became an Electrical Engineer.
By the early ‘90s we started going to Lebanon on summers and it seems that the legend of Shafika has made its way across the border into Lebanon. The Lebanese version of Shafika came in the form of a walkman with orders pre-recorded on a worn out cassette tape hid under the towels in the bathtub.
The Lebanese Shafika wasn’t as effective as the Syrian one, partly because of the bad recording, and partly because we had grown out of it. In one episode Shafika was forgotten in the bathroom booming out orders with a drained out battery.
We suddenly heard Teta run out of the bathroom with her panties around her ankles calling out to my cousin, “There are sounds coming out of the bathtub! Come see!”